Devil Inside

Elaine Pagels has made a career out of looking toward the origins of Christianity and perceiving and articulating a religious world of the past that is critically relevant to our present time. In her landmark work The Gnostic Gospels, she looked at what had been imagined as "the golden age of Christianity" -- a time when the first Christians were supposedly united behind one vision of Christ -- and found a complex and intense theological and sociopolitical battleground. Working with texts uncovered in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945, Pagels found in these "secret Gospels" another Christian view in the first century. The Gnostics (from the Greek gnosis, a word that has a variety of meanings but is best translated as "knowledge," "wisdom" or "insight") held that God could be known without the prescriptions of a church hierarchy -- a view the emerging church eventually labeled as heresy. Yet in reading Pagels one finds in the Gnostic vision a surprisingly contemporary appeal.In her most recent book, The Origin of Satan, which she was in town to lecture on at Washington University, Pagels again finds the seeds of contemporary belief in archaic texts. She looks at the canon Gospels -- Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- and places their composition in a sociopolitical context. She shows how Christians began to demonize their enemies, especially their most "intimate enemies": Jews. "So long as Christians remained a minority movement within Jewish communities," Pagels writes, "they tended to regard other Jews as potential enemies, and Gentiles as potential converts." By the time the Gospel of John is written, the Jews -- which Jesus and his followers were -- are "the other," aligned with wickedness and Satan. The role of the Romans in Jesus' death is minimized, with increasing blame placed on "Jesus' Jewish enemies."Two-thousand years of anti-Semitism followed. Pagels is just as concerned with the demonization process in our own time, and she counters the moral justification for setting up lines of conflict between "us" and "them" with other models from the Christian tradition such as Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King Jr.: Christians who fought against evil "while praying for the reconciliation -- not the damnation -- of those who opposed them."Pagels spoke with the RFT from her office at Princeton University. As forceful and intellectual a presence as Pagels is on the page, on the phone she is charming, articulate and possessed of a vibrant wit and sense of humor.RFT: Is Satan used as a kind of intellectual and moral crutch? I'm thinking of the way we use Satan to deal or not deal with people that we're opposed to.Elaine Pagels: I wouldn't put it that way because it's a reductionist way to put it. If you say that Satan is just a way to deal or not deal with people -- I don't think that's true. If I were a psychologist who says, "Religion is all bunk; it is a psychological-avoidance technique" -- that would be accurate. But I'm not quite so cynical about it or reductionist about it. You can put it a different way, in a way that isn't particularly hostile to religion -- because I'm not -- and say it's a religious interpretation of human conflict. It may be a way of dealing with the supernatural, but my book isn't concerned with that. My interest isn't so much in theology as it is in what's down here on earth. What Satan is at least is a way of dealing or not dealing with people. That's not to say that's all it is.What I discovered in the course of doing this work is that people who take Satan seriously, whether in the first century or the 20th century, are not simply talking about a supernatural conflict up there in the stratosphere -- they're talking simultaneously about human conflict right here. And they can usually tell you exactly the people they have in mind who are on that other side. It's a religious interpretation, but it's also a very practical one.You begin the book by talking about your own experience after the death of your husband and the feeling of this invisible presence -- and your attempt to understand it and know it.It's not even so much that. I had also lost a son the year before who was 6 years old -- he died of a lung disease. It's a common feeling people have when they're suddenly bereaved of their most intimate family -- the person seems to be there and isn't there. It's a very odd feeling.About a year later, when I was finally able to start thinking again, I began thinking seriously about how in every religion I was familiar with in the ancient world -- whether it was Egyptian, Jewish, Greek or Christian -- everyone assumed there were invisible beings all around them, impinging on them, yet they imagined them in different ways. And it really matters a lot in terms of how we see ourselves whether we envision them, say, in the terms of the Greek gods or whether we envision them as an army of angels on one side and an army of angels on the other contending in a universe that is basically a battleground for moral struggles.So in the first century of Christianity this moral consciousness awakens. Yes. That was also very attractive. I got to thinking, why did people adopt this view of demons and angels? I realized it was very attractive in a world where suddenly you could make moral sense out of the world and feel that your actions really count. If you decide not to steal or if you decide to give something to someone in need, you're participating in a universe in which you're taking God's side against the powers of evil. What you do is of infinite consequence. That's rather powerful.You show in the book one of the reasons this comes about. We have this Cecil B. DeMille vision of the gladiators, but the gladiatorial spectacles in Rome had reached perverse proportions.It was Cecil B. DeMille. It was much greater. In one afternoon if 300 people got slaughtered, that's one good day in the Roman amphitheater. Cecil B. DeMille didn't even begin to compare to that as spectacle.When Justin was converted, it was as if scales fell from his eyes, and he saw all of these slaves being sold, and children being bought and sold for sexual specialties, gladiators being raised and selling themselves either to get rich or die. Justin thought all of these things were terrible delusions of demons that were keeping people from moral awareness.There is a sense of tremendous energy that comes from the early movement when people awakened to the sense of a moral universe. I had to realize that people didn't adopt it for nothing -- it was such a significant way of looking at things.In the canon Gospels it seems that Satan is imminent. Satan is all around you as an intimate enemy.And in you. It's interesting. The reason I turned to the Gnostic Gospels at the end of this book, I was trying to think, "Suppose we didn't use this Satan language this way. How could we take seriously the existence of evil?" Some people looked at this book and thought, "She's saying there's no such thing as evil," as if it's all this fashionable, liberal, deconstructionist nonsense. I think to live in the 20th century and think there's no such thing as evil you'd have to be pretty much blind. That kind of naivete I really dislike. I was looking at the Gospel of Philip, which uses this ancient Jewish image of the evil impulse and the good impulse within Adam. Within everyone there is a good impulse and an evil impulse -- the roots of wickedness that are in us. If we're not aware of the evil impulse, it can dominate us. But if we're aware of it, it loses its tyranny over us, its capacity to rule us unconsciously.I felt that was a more humane way of thinking about how we can cope with our own potential for evil. What bothered me morally as I was working on this book is that dividing the world between good and evil has allowed Christians particularly or Muslims -- since Christians and Muslims are the two groups that use this imagery the most -- to imagine themselves as pure and holy while doing things that are often very destructive to other people in the name of good. That is a painful reality of Christian and Muslim history. Not that other people aren't very good at killing other people. They didn't invent evil. They invented a way of doing it and calling it good.You know that one of the reasons Mother Teresa gave as to why she began ministering to the lepers in Calcutta was that she had realized there was a Hitler inside her.Meaning that she wished they were annihilated?So her next action was to minister to them.That is a very clear perception of the evil impulse, the impulse to negate, destroy, do away with people who make us uncomfortable. People who are disturbing.What she has then is this sense of "gnosis."That's gnosis! To know your own capacity -- that's the moral message of the book: to know your own capacity for doing evil. Not thinking, "We're on god's side."I was writing this during the Gulf War, and the president was talking about Saddam Hussein as a great Satan.We were demonizing.And so were the Muslims. They were doing exactly the same thing. They were doing it back. The president was talking about how we were on God's side, and therefore we could kill 100,000 people in Iraq and this was their problem. We have to do this because they're evil.I'm not debating the merits of that war. I'm just saying what bothered me was the appeal that we were good -- not saying, "This is a terrible thing but we have to do it for pragmatic reasons." But to say, "This man is Satan. We have to stop him and doing it is a good thing."Thus we are good and thus we are just, and we are working as agents of God. And what you just told me about Teresa is her own compassion coming out of a profound sense of her own capacity for destruction. I think that's very deep and very real. As I said at the end of the book, there have always been Christians who have felt they were on the side of God without trying to annihilate their enemy. This Truth and Reconciliation Act in South Africa is an extraordinary example of trying to deal with horrendous evil -- torture and murder -- without saying, "We're pure and those people are completely wrong," but just to acknowledge it.


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